What's at Stake in Cairo

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1. Let's be quite clear: If the military opens fire in the streets of Cairo, as militaries sometimes do when dictators feel the wheels coming off - consider Hafez al-Assad killing 20,000 Syrians in Hama, in 1982, or Saddam's 1988 Halabja massacre, or Mubarak's own three week siege of Cairo's Imbaba district, in 1992 - their deaths will have been financed by U.S. tax dollars.

We may not have bought AK-47's themselves, but the billion and a half dollars we dole out each year -- $68 billion since 1948 -- has made Egypt's army the most formidable among Arab states. Cairo is among the most profligate of U.S. aid recipients; it currently ranks alongside Israel, Pakistan and Afghanistan atop the American foreign appropriation rolls.

For fifty years, the U.S. has cut a deal with the devil we know -- notably the al-Saud family in Riyadh and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt -- at the cost of abandoning our national narrative and values. It was, we decided, the price of stability. It was as unfortunate as it was damming; they are among the most powerful weapons we wield.

Successive American administrations have chosen to support autocrats willing to share intelligence, stamp out the very extremism their stifling rule engenders, and support Israel, either coldly and overtly or quietly, rather than face the unknown - a devil that may share less appetite for rapport with the West.

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Exasperation with that hypocrisy -- even if lost on the American public -- has never faded for Arabs. It is the foundation of al Qaeda's hatred for the U.S., and the reason its words resonate with millions of Muslims who would never support Sharia law or a return to a caliphate.

2. In Jordan, for the third Friday in a row, several thousand protesters marched on downtown Amman following Friday prayers; last week in Syria, President Assad met with the Iranian foreign minister to discuss the fate of Lebanon, the chessboard of the region, where, three weeks ago, as President Obama met with Prime Minister Saad Hariri, the American backed coalition was toppled by Hezbollah.

In the last month, in addition to watching allies in Beirut and Tunis fall, Washington saw Ehud Barak and four others abandon Israel's Labor Party to remain in step with the conservative government of Benjamin Netanyahu; the threat of their withdrawal was the last lever Israeli moderates and Washington held to push Bibi toward peace negotiations.

Washington has, in effect, been neutered across the Middle East.

3. I drove across the Sinai a few summers ago, from Cairo to Ras el Masri, and then took a ferry to Jordan. I stopped at nearly every hamlet along the way, on account of a sick travel mate, and spoke with dozens of Egyptians I came across - mechanics, vendors, and soldiers alone in the dessert night, guarding the burned out hulls of buses and trucks that roving Bedouin might otherwise carry away.[1]

Overwhelmingly, both in Egypt and more broadly in the region, one finds people who are genuinely intrigued by the idea of America. Perhaps because they live beneath tyrants they vehemently oppose, Arabs -- contrary to popular belief -- seem quite adept at separating government policies from the beliefs of citizens.

They don't hate us. They do at times hate our government, though, and quite reasonably, at that.

But the notion of a country where citizens are truly equal before the law; where everyday life is not mired in corruption; and where, most importantly, there are genuine opportunities for advancement, resonate quite loudly. There is a level of fascination with the American idea that one struggles to wrap the mind around.

Today, for the first time in more than half a century, we are a step closer to reconciling the powerful ideas underpinning our nation with the stifling fate we help force upon millions of Arabs. It comes with risks, particular for Israel, but the status quo was untenable, and can no longer fit American interests.  

4. It's not likely that the Egyptian military will dash the calm their presence has instilled. If protesters choose not to clash with them, but, instead, return to peaceful protests, I think a dull grind is likely. Martial law will have to be imposed. 

There will come a time, though, when the aging Mubarak is told to leave. It may prove quite soon. He is no longer of value to the military, and that, in the end, is all that matters. As always, as go the generals goes the revolution.

His reshuffling won't satisfy the street, and unless Mubarak quickly sets to building something new and quite bold - that includes the Muslim Brotherhood, ElBaradei, and other power holders - this is the end of his rule.

I missed 1979, but one wonders if it felts a bit like this. The upheaval in Tehran, oil prices dashing forward, the TV ticker could, quite simply, read anything at the next glance. It is at once electric and terrifying.

Robert Fisk, The Independent's longtime man in Beirut, wrote last week:

The truth, of course, is that the Arab world is so dysfunctional, sclerotic, corrupt, humiliated and ruthless...and so totally incapable of any social or political progress, that the chances of a series of working democracies emerging from the chaos of the Middle East stand at around zero per cent.

Cairo is a loud and filthy city, impoverished and chaotic before a revolution took hold. 

We should all hope for the sake of stability, our friends in Israel, and, most importantly, for the kids of Cairo, that old man Fisk is proven a fool.

[1] The Egyptian military employs nearly half a million people; its peace with Israel prevents other neighbors from launching war with the Jewish state. It is essentially a public works program,  a way for the government to keep millions above the breadline, and the guarding of fuselage seemed its most absurd manifestation.